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Policing, politics and provocation

The Long View

Pondering with dismay this week’s tremendous burden of videos showing unmistakably violent actions on the part of police forces throughout the country, I was reminded of essential lessons I’d learned during a decade of filmmaking with and about police and law enforcement. 

The first lessons came while doing a documentary contrasting and comparing life at two prisons near the Hudson River, Wallkill on the west side and Greenhaven on the east. Wallkill was then a medium-security prison and Greenhaven, a maximum-security pen. 

At Greenhaven I interviewed a dozen prisoners whose names were supplied by The Fortune Society, and also some guards.  Among the latter was a lieutenant named Smitty. A recovering alcoholic, Smitty was clearly more sensitive to the possibilities of going astray than most other guards, and candidly admitted that the line between the violent criminals in the prison and the toughest guards and other law enforcement personnel was very thin. 

During those years I became friendly with several former inmates. Bob Brown had been at both prisons, and they wouldn’t allow him back even to visit, and certainly not as my guide. An orphan who had had a horrific childhood, he became famous in 1947 after being convicted of murder for killing a store clerk while in his Army uniform; The New Yorker ran a two-part article, appropriately entitled “Flight Into Custody.”  In prison he became a nurse. Released after a quarter-century, he became an asset to society, working for the New York City mayor’s office on cleaning up Times Square. He interacted well with many law enforcement types but echoed Smitty’s concerns about the vein of violence just beneath cops’ surfaces. 

I was also reminded by this week’s police actions of things on the positive side, of the work of the police department in Kansas City, Missouri, that I filmed for another documentary on advances in policing techniques. Chief Clarence M. Kelley, working with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, had instituted many reforms in his department. 

Among them were that if an officer fired a gun, he or she would be so mired in paperwork for the following month as to dissuade that officer (and his or her colleagues) from using deadly force for quite a while. Another was an injunction against car chases; these nearly always injured someone, the IACP’s statistics showed, and were not a good way to arrest anyone; police radio and roadblocks and tire deflators were much more efficient and less harmful.  Make no mistake: this was very good policing.  Kelley introduced other reforms, and they worked so well that President Richard M. Nixon appointed him as director of the FBI; he served from 1973 to 1978.    

One of my documentaries was about African-American cops, naturally entitled “Black and Blue.” There were enough in the NYPD to have their own fraternal organization called the Guardians, but the concept of having substantial numbers of non-whites in police uniforms was still fairly new. I learned from them how difficult it was to be both black and blue, and to be loyal to both colors, but that they were committed to doing both.  They also thought that they were actually tougher on African-American “perps”  than their white colleagues, and that their presence in the ranks helped their white colleagues be more understanding of the stresses on African-Americans in general.   

Another factor to consider: Now as then, one of the earliest lessons taught to cadets in every police academy is the absolute necessity of not letting yourself as a cop be baited into overly violent responses. Epithets, physical gestures, even spitting ­— cops are routinely taught how to handle these obnoxious and often downright awful provocations by a variety of techniques.

Given that fact, how come dozens of police departments throughout the country are being seen on videos cracking heads and otherwise using heavy force against current demonstrators?  I do not think this is a matter of “bad apples.” As Smitty, Brownie, Chief Kelley and the Guardians taught me, we all have tendencies toward violence, and nearly all of us learn how to control them in most if not all circumstances. 

What I see in those videos is not cops out of control but cops being badly supervised, and who rather than having been told to do whatever they have in their power to prevent violence, have been instructed to “clear the area” without regard to the consequences.  Another element is that the cops and their supervisors know and rely on the courts’ usually lenient treatment of police use of excessive force against civilians.  

The fault, in other words, is not in our front-line cops, but in their supervisors — including their political supervisors — who have allowed themselves to be provoked to over-reaction.    


Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.

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